Connect and Catalyze

An Ideas Lab – also known as a Sandpit – has a number of key players in attendance. The twenty-some participants are obviously important; they do the thinking that helps to define the landscape of the problem and generate research ideas to address it. The facilitators nudge people from one activity to the next, choreographing discussions and then interrupting them and pointing people toward the next conversation. The meeting organizers and funders oversee what’s happening from the sidelines and there are often guest speakers who have a few moments in front of the room to provoke participants’ thinking in new directions. It’s the group of people we refer to as mentors who have perhaps one of the most interesting roles at our workshops. We tell them they’re job is to connect and catalyze the participants.

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Mentors are analogous to peer reviewers but with a much more creative twist. At the start of the event, their job is to encourage new ideas by asking questions, highlighting ideas that seem exciting, and making connections – both between participants and to the wider body of knowledge. Toward the end of the event, the mentors’ role changes and they have to adopt a more critical perspective, to be able to make objective funding recommendations to the event organizers.

Professor Alison Smith of the John Innes Center was a mentor at a KI-led Ideas Lab titled Nitrogen: Improving on Nature. She described her experience like being “an objective friend: asking whether other skills might be useful, pointing out existing literature that some participants might not be aware of, asking how the emerging idea will go beyond what might be possible in a standard application, asking about the balance between feasibility and novelty.”

The team of mentors – there can between three to five at an Ideas Lab – usually represents a range of different academic perspectives that have some bearing on the question that’s central to the event. Their expertise is essential, but an equally important attribute for a mentor is to be ambitious about the science, intensely curious about the topic of the workshop, and adept at giving feedback, without being directive. This is the critical bit: they have to stay neutral and avoid getting tangled up in the ideas or too engaged in the participant groups.

“When you hear some really interesting ideas related to your area of expertise, it’s tempting to get involved in the discussion and steer the conversation in a specific direction.” Nandini Kannan was a mentor at an Ideas Lab about Data-Intensive Research to Improve Teaching and Learning, after being the NSF Program Officer for a Maths Workforce event also facilitated by KI. “I made a conscious decision to just listen to the discussions and point participants to language in the solicitation or to the expertise they needed.”

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The mentors and the facilitators need to work in tandem during an Ideas Lab. While the facilitators drive the process of the workshop, the mentors steer the content, to the degree they can. We discourage them from giving any direct advice, but rather to ask open-ended questions that help the participants answer their own questions or think about the questions they’re asking in a different manner. We meet as a full team, facilitators and mentors together, at various points during the workshop, to gauge how the potential projects are developing and how the participants are doing in general. We warn the mentors about the ebb and flow of the process, how there are low points during the week when they won’t be as impressed as they expect to be or when they’ll be disappointed that the groups haven’t moved further along, faster. We encourage them to be patient, even though it can get a bit nerve-wracking, and the tension – for the participants who are trying to create projects as well as the mentors, who want to be sure the event produces quality science – can get pretty high.

“We heard – repeatedly – from the facilitators that the truly innovative ideas will emerge late in the process,” said Kannan. “By the morning of the fourth day the panic was setting in!” This is when the mentors role is most critical. Kannan and her colleagues sat with each group and reminded them to address the novelty and potential transformative nature of their research ideas, as well as the multi-disciplinary focus. The discussions at this point of the process are the ones that can often lead to the birth of an entirely new and novel idea.

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“The quality of the final projects was remarkable,” said Kannan. “One group even came up with an idea that we felt had the potential to be truly transformative, and it came together just a few hours before the final presentation.”

Smith had a similar experience, twice, as she’s been to two workshops, first as a participant and then as a mentor. “I’ve seen how a very disparate group of people can actually come up with valuable new scientific ideas at the end of the week, even though both times I couldn’t see how this was going to happen until quite a late stage.”

Both mentors noted how the participant groups transformed during the week. Kannan found it fascinating to watch the creative process unfold. “There’s a subtle yet perceptive shift in the attitudes mid-week. Instead of hearing individuals talk about their own research, you start to hear animated conversations, discussions and arguments as ideas get tossed around.”

“The projects were certainly novel, exciting and highly unlikely to have emerged from any other funding mechanism,” said Smith, “I also felt the process worked for the participants individually – they learned a lot, not least about themselves.”

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We asked both Kannan and Smith if they had any advice for future Ideas Lab and Sandpit mentors. Here’s what they suggested:

• Read the solicitation carefully.
• Talk to the program officers to understand the goals of the solicitation and the review criteria and to understand their definition of an innovative project.
• Remember your primary role is to provide constructive feedback and to refine the ideas that the groups have proposed.
• Encourage groups to identify novel ideas and connections to existing research.
• Be an encouraging friend rather than a critical judge.
• Be alert to body language and behavior.
• Treat everyone equally; impartiality is essential.
• Also remember that the participants are adults and there’s only so much you can do to help them.

Most of all, Knowinnovation encourages the mentors to enjoy the experience. Smith concurs. “Apart from anything else,” she said, “it’s very rare to be given a week to think about how your science might be used in big projects to solve global problems, and very rewarding.”